A century and a half ago, in appreciation of services rendered at the Nile, the Sultan of Egypt presented to Lord Nelson a seven-pound, curlicued, solid silver soup tureen. Full of soup, this impressive memento weighs 18 pounds, but it is rarely used for this utilitarian purpose. To sailors all over North America it is known as the Mallory Cup, after Clifford D. Mallory, founder of the North American Yacht Racing Union, whose family in 1952 put it up as a prize for the best small-boat sailor on the continent.
As a piece of silver, the Mallory Cup is 39 years older than the America's Cup; as a trophy, it is equally or more difficult to win. Winning it three times in a row means bucking outlandish odds, for Mallory Cup competition is not designed for repeat winners. A lengthy elimination series in eight geographical areas of the U.S. and Canada decides the eight finalists, who then must meet in an eight-race, round-robin regatta. The type of boat used is changed each year; the actual boats must change hands daily to assure that it is the sailor, not the boat, that wins the series. So far, in 10 years, seven sailors have taken the cup home, but for the last three years it has not budged from a living room in Lake Geneva, Wis., where it is the proud centerpiece for a family of three—Harry C. Melges Jr., 32 (a young man who likes chocolate milk and hamburgers more than he does soup), his wife, Gloria, and Laura, their blonde baby daughter, who fits neatly into the cup.
That Harry Melges, whose friends call him Buddy, should have won the cup even once is surprising. In a sport whose protagonists are traditionally stereotyped as mellowed and wealthy eastern sportsmen, he is a decided anomaly, a hometown boy as mid western as corn, cabbages or flies in the summer. Buddy Melges began saving up for a sailboat when he was only 5 years old by rowing passengers around the lake for 10� a trip. Today he supervises the activities of the Melges boat works, which turns out the famous Melges sailing scows, and acts as a one-man traveling advertising agency for the boats produced there. In addition, he heads up the junior sailing school on the lake, hunts ducks along its shores, races iceboats on its frozen winter surface and, between sailing and family, remains an unpretentious local boy. "He don't even talk about sailing," says Mr. Macuba, who cuts Melges' hair in Dell's Barber Shop downtown. "And he waits his turn in the chair same as everyone else."
Patience is a virtue Melges possesses in abundance; sailing superiority did not come easily. It was achieved through discipline as solid as his Dutch ancestry, as gradually as learning to read. "Every time I get into a sailboat I learn something," he says candidly, and he means it. His classroom, as a boy, was Lake Geneva. His first teacher was his father, a stern Dutch taskmaster who had built and raced boats all his life and who took notes on his son's tactics in every race. After each race there would be an examination. "Why did you tack here? Why didn't you trim there?" Melges Sr. would demand. Melges Jr. would have to come up with an answer.
On June 15, 1946 the examinations really began to pay off. The first boat ever built by the Melges firm, a 20-foot Class C scow named Widgeon (after a wary, unpredictable duck), had been launched the night before. "We sneaked it down to the lake when no one was around," Melges says now. "We'd been working on that design for almost a year, but we really didn't know what we had until we actually put it in the water." That day, the opening of the season, their wary, unpredictable duck, with Buddy Melges at the helm, flew home ahead of every other boat. Eleven races later, with 10 more first places, Melges had won his first Lake Geneva sailing championship.
The pupil was also learning the finer points of his subject, like the value quotient of soggy matches. On the downwind leg of one race, Melges stuck a cigarette in his mouth, and his nearest competitor, looking over, saw him futilely trying to light it. As match after match was tossed aside the competitor grew more and more fascinated with Melges' efforts to get a light and less and less concerned with the trim of his own sails. Melges never did get the cigarette lighted, but he won the race. His competitor's spinnaker had collapsed for lack of attention.
Five years later Harry Melges, the boat works, was in full bloom, and Harry Melges, the sailor, also was blossoming in a big way. But in September 1951, Sailorman Buddy Melges became a soldier in the U.S. Army. Eight months later he landed in Korea. He didn't sail again for two years.
"But the day I got out," he now recalls with emphasis, "I was back working in the shop." The boat works had grown in his absence. Orders were pouring in faster than they could be filled. Buddy Melges began a service that has become a hallmark of the firm. Between June and September 1954 he put well over 30,000 miles on his car, traveling to distant regattas to tune up boats, service them in any way possible and offer tactical suggestions to their skippers. "Customers or competitors, it makes no difference," he says. "You never know when a competitor is going to become a paying customer."
He also got married and, with the coaching of his wife Gloria, who is herself a first-class sailor, began sharpening the competitive sailing edge that had dulled through inactivity. By the following summer that edge was keen enough to win the right to represent the Inland Lake Yachting Association at the 1956 Area Six Eliminations for the Mallory Cup in Chicago.
So far, all of Melges' victories had been in his own scows; now things were about to change. The boat selected was a Luders L-16, chosen because it resembled the Blanchard Seniors that were to be used in the finals in Seattle. Melges had hardly ever been aboard a keel boat, much less raced one. But, with Gloria as crew, he won the first four races, took a second in the fifth and in so doing mathematically eliminated his competition. The rest of the regatta was called off.